One of the toughest parts of parenting, I believe, is in the area of discipline. We all acknowledge that it is difficult to raise children. We all commend the parents who do it and nod sympathetically as we lend our ears to a parent who is at wits end with a spirited child. Yet, when we see a child misbehaving in public, we give the evil eye to the parent in charge as if that misbehaviour is all the fault of the parent.
Yes, there are parents who are permissive, negligent, and at fault. But a misbehaving child is not necessarily the sign that the parent is all this and worse. If you have only ever had a well behaved child who is mild-mannered and easy-going, it is easily to get on a high horse and frown upon other parents with spirited children who appear less in control of their children. Often you don’t learn this until you get one of those spirited children that you struggle to tame.
For example, I was always very proud of the fact that Aristotle was a child who could sit down to a meal in a restaurant and be entertained with activity books, trains, paper and coloured pencils without needing to get up and run around. I used to think it was my excellent upbringing that resulted in him developing into such a child. And then I had Hercules and I discovered, much to my dismay, the gross error of my haughty beliefs.
When you stand from afar, it is easy to point the finger and blame the parents never realising at all what it is like to be that parent. It is easy to lay all the blame at the feet of the parents, never once considering the personality and temperament of the child. If we were raising robots, I would agree that if a child misbehaves, it is the parent’s fault. But we’re not raising robots, we’re raising little people – little people with emotions, different temperaments, unique personalities. They are unique individuals in their own right. They don’t develop their uniqueness after they grow up, they possess them right from the start.
The funny thing about children is that we seem to take away all their rights to be human simply because they are children. It’s okay to yell at them and smack them in the name of discipline just because they are children. Yet we would never think to do such things to another adult without feeling bad about it afterward or even thinking our behaviour was inappropriate. We assume that little children should give us respect yet we give them none in return because they are children. This is a hairy area particularly when it comes to Chinese tradition. As Chinese, we believe it is important to respect those older than us – and I agree! But I also feel it is important to respect our children because respect breeds respect. If we respect our children, they will respect us in return.
Okay, so there are times when we see our children behave in ways that make us want to cringe and pretend it they are not our children. People make mistakes, even more so children who are young and still learning the ways of the world. In between learning what is acceptable and what is not, they are also learning about boundaries and testing how far they are able to push them. Often these little experiments can result in improper or unacceptable behaviour. Shichida said it very nicely – “children are a work in progress, not a finished product” – so do not expect them to behave properly and perfectly at all times. Do not feel you have failed because your children misbehave.
The old ways of discipline were all about beating kids into submission. In some ways, those old ways aren’t too far gone because it seems like children are still expected to behave submissively. Those that aren’t are “disobedient”. And when they misbehave, we often feel a need to come down hard or be viewed as being “permissive” or “soft”. It is easy to fall into this trap and end up in the never ending spiral of authority and more authority. There is also the fear that any admission of wrong from the parent is an admission of weakness which undermines authority. Because we’re the adults, we’re not allowed to be wrong and we cannot admit to being wrong and therefore cannot say sorry because that would be an admission of being wrong. But being wrong and admitting to it teaches our children that it is okay to make mistakes.
The other problem with forceful discipline is that it can go in one of two ways – and I believe that neither outcome is good:
- you could end up with a child who obeys you with submissive obedience. Do we really want to raise sheep who will be walked over later in life because they don’t t know when to use their voices? Sure it makes parenting a lot easier, but I don’t think this is in the best interest of our children’s well-being in later life.
- you could end up with a child who appears to obey you but defies you the moment your back is turned.
Of course you could get lucky and end up with one of those children who escapes both of these outcomes, but why would you take that chance?
Recently, I read a blog post about the importance of connecting before correcting and I felt it was the perfect reminder on the importance of building the relationship first – the reason why we worked so hard to build a bond with our babies in the first place. At the end of the day, I want to raise a child who behaves because he respects me, not because he fears me. If he behaves because he fears me, there will be nothing to keep him in line if I am not around to keep him in check. However, if he behaves because he respects me, his respect for me will motivate him to keep behaving even when I am not around. At least that’s what I believe and hope for.
Update: What opportune timing that this article should be sent to my inbox at a time when I have been questioning my adequacy as a disciplinarian to my children:
“As a toddler your child took his first steps towards independence. Now that he’s a preschooler he’s discovered that not only can he be independent, but that making his own choices is his decided preference. While that bid for independence is age-appropriate, it can be difficult for you to adjust to, especially if your child is strong-willed…
…They say you’ll know you have a strong-willed child when you find yourself struggling to teach him that he’s not in charge of everything.”
It is normal for a child at this age to challenge authority. It’s part of his learning experience in dealing with the world around him. So if you are beating yourself up like I was for a child who is demonstrating qualities that appear to be far from the angel child, stop. Accept the fact that you happen to have a spirited child and look for your own ways to deal with it. Don’t suffer the criticisms from others and do not listen to misplaced advice that makes you feel like you have to force your child into a cookie-cutter mould. You are your child’s mother and you know your child best. Evenf if you feel you don’t know what you’re doing, you are the best person to figure it out. Trust in that.